Toxic leadership has become an unfortunate reality in many companies and even countries. Toxic leaders impact employees’ mental well-being, impede overall productivity, and they are an obstacle to a company reaching its full potential in terms of profitability, growth and success. The danger of toxic leadership cannot be overstated as it has far-reaching negative consequences for stakeholders and society as a whole.
Throughout history, there were prominent examples of toxic leaders. In its most extreme, a toxic leader who is a head of state can bring calamity to the country.
For example, Communist China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, in 1957 launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in which between 550,000 and two million people, mostly intellectuals and dissidents, were persecuted. From 1958 to 1962, his Great Leap Forward Campaign led to the deadliest famine in history with deaths of 15 to 55 million people. In 1966, he initiated the Cultural Revolution to remove “counter-revolutionary” elements, including capitalism. It lasted for 10 years, which killed an estimated 1.6 million people, until Mao died in 1976.
More recently, on February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin started an illegal and unprovoked invasion against neighboring Ukraine. However, in the process, he achieved the exact opposite of his intended objectives: fierce military resistance from united Ukrainians, international support, economic sanctions and a revitalized NATO, among others. The toxic leader, by making this unilateral decision, has brought hardship and crisis to his country.
Toxic leadership traits may vary depending on the circumstances, but common characteristics include expectation of unquestioned loyalty, excessive control, lack of empathy, dishonesty, micromanagement, nepotism and manipulation. These leaders often create a culture of fear and silence, prioritize personal gain and ego satisfaction, and they believe their opinion is the only one that matters. They are not receptive to other people’s opinions and interpret these as dissent. That being the case, they make poor decisions.
A toxic office
Toxic leadership is characterized by abusive, manipulative and self-serving behaviors that undermine the well-being and success of individuals and companies. Toxic leaders promote a hostile, detrimental and often abusive work environment.
The toxic leaders are excessively controlling and constantly monitors and scrutinizes every detail of their team’s work. They lack trust in their subordinates’ abilities, stifling creativity and motivation. They use intimidation, humiliation and aggression as a means of exerting control. They often belittle and demean their team members, creating a hostile and fear-based work environment.
The toxic leaders are highly skilled in manipulation and uses it to further their own interests. They play mind games, spread misinformation or pit team members against each other for personal gain. They are disengaged, unapproachable and uninvolved. They show little interest in developing relationships with their team or providing necessary guidance and support, resulting in confusion and a lack of direction.
The toxic leaders avoid taking responsibility for their own failures and instead shift blame onto their team members. They create a culture of scapegoating and do not foster a sense of accountability or growth. The toxic work environment they create stifles creativity and innovation, erodes trust, cripples collaboration and leads to stress, burnout and increased turnover rate among employees.
The loss of highly skilled and talented employees has severe financial and operational implications. For example, a loss of institutional knowledge and expertise. The costs associated with recruiting, training, and onboarding new employees can be substantial too.
Importantly, toxic leaders also hurt their companies’ profitability and productivity by undermining the ability to adapt, evolve and compete in a dynamic and rapidly changing industry.
Additionally, they often disregard ethical considerations and engage in questionable practices to achieve personal gain or maintain their power. Such behavior sets a dangerous precedent, normalizing unethical conduct and compromising the integrity of the entire workforce. The erosion of ethical standards can have far-reaching consequences, including legal and financial risks, damage to reputation and a loss of stakeholder and public trust.
Regardless of whether a toxic leader is a head of state or a company CEO, they are a threat that permeates many aspects of our lives, from politics to the workplace. The effects extend beyond a company’s boundary, permeating society at large, right up to the national level, sometimes even with consequences for the world at large, as we have seen with Putin’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and his scrapping of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which worsen global food insecurity, inflation and supply chain crisis.
When toxic leaders occupy positions of power, they can negatively influence the political, social and economic landscape. The toxic behaviors exhibit by these leaders filter down and infiltrate various aspects of the world order, exacerbating polarization, fostering a climate of mistrust and hindering human progress.
Therefore, it is important that we support a culture that values trust, ethics, respect, dignity, diversity and inclusion. We must have the courage to call out toxic leaders and push for the cultivation of ethical leadership, focusing on integrity, transparency and accountability. We need to take a very firm stance on this issue as it is a question of right or wrong and there are serious ramifications for us as well as for generations to come. And we have to be on the right side of history.
Photo credit: iStock/AndreyPopov